Religion, Rights and Secular Society

Religion, Rights and Secular Society

European Perspectives

Edited by Peter Cumper and Tom Lewis

The expectations of many that religion in modern Europe would be swept away by the powerful current of secularization have not been realised, and today few topics generate more controversy than the complex relationship between religious and secular values. The ‘religious/secular’ relationship is examined in this book, which brings together scholars from different parts of Europe and beyond to provide insights into the methods by which religion and equivalent beliefs have been, and continue to be, protected in the legal systems and constitutions of European nations. The contributors’ chapters reveal that the oft-tumultuous legacy of Europe’s relationship with religion still resonates across a continent where legal, political and social contours have been powerfully shaped by faith and religious difference.

Chapter 8: Religious freedom in a secular society: an analysis of the French approach to manifestation of beliefs in the public sphere

Sylvie Bacquet

Subjects: law - academic, european law, human rights, politics and public policy, human rights


France, with its quasi-obsessive tradition of secularism (laicité), is often singled out from its European neighbours for its strict approach to regulating religious symbols in the public sphere. By adopting Law n° 2004–228 banning the wearing of religious symbols at school, France has unequivocally resisted a relaxation of the prohibition of manifestation of religious beliefs in the public sphere. This legislation is the culmination of France’s long tradition of laicité, which goes back to the nineteenth century and originated in the conflict between the Catholic Church and the French Republic. As such, the law is deemed to mark an important feature of the separation of powers and the independence of the state from religious pressure. More recently and following the same stance, the French Parliament went even further by approving a Bill banning the wearing of the full veil in public. The law that the French Senate adopted with an overwhelming majority (246 to 1) came into force on 11 April 2011 and provides that in the public sphere no one can wear a garment intended to fully cover the face. While the wording of the law does not single out religious attire, it is clear that it was intended to target the small minority of Muslim women who wear the niqab or burqa in France.5 Proponents of the law allege that full face coverings, the burqa and niqab in particular, infringe republican values (especially laicité, equality between men and women, citizenship and freedom of worship).

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